Do you know where your garlic comes from? One of the most important reasons to grow your own is to avoid toxic chemicals and irradiation (that inhibit sprouting and extend shelf life).*
A few years back I didn’t even think about the garlic I ate … but then I became interested in the story behind the food I was eating.
The majority of the world’s garlic is grown in China and is sprayed with chemicals and bleached white with chlorine during importation quarantine processes, not to mention the thousands of food miles clocked up.
But if you really want to gag on your garlic, according to the CEO of the Australian Garlic Industry Association, “some garlic growers over there (China) use raw human sewage to fertilise their crops, and I don’t believe the Australian quarantine regulations are strict enough in terms of bacteria testing on imported produce” … so you might want to think again before you reach for that perfect white bulb in your supermarket! [Learn more & download an 'Irradiation-free Food Guide' at the end of this post]
In Australia, 90% of the garlic we eat is imported yet we have around 15 different garlic varieties available to grow that don’t need to be biofumigated with chemicals like methyl bromide that have been banned here for domestic use.
4 Reasons to Grow Garlic
- For health, amazing flavour + pest management in your garden.
- Safe food = avoid imported garlic – it’s cheap for a reason.
- Save money – organic garlic averages A$35-45/kg.
- It’s SO easy to grow so there’s no excuse!
“Where you find garlic, you find good health.” – Old Spanish proverb
Garlic is a bulbous perennial herb but grown as an annual. OK – it IS slow growing (avg 6-8 months), but it’s NOT a bed hog like pumpkins and doesn’t take up much ‘personal space’, so I’m happy to dedicate about 1m2 to growing gorgeous garlic to feed my family for an entire year. It’s a member of the Allium (onion) family – all space savers!
Tutorial: 5 Steps to Growing Gorgeous Garlic
When to Plant:
- Garlic can be grown in all zones. For higher yields and larger cloves, the best time to plant is Autumn. Don’t despair though – garlic can be planted during the year but the size of bulbs may be smaller. (When it tastes this awesome, you need less and it saves you so much money, so who cares?)
- In 2011, I didn’t get the chance to plant in Autumn so bunged in a stack of soft neck garlic I had left in my fridge on 25 August and harvested it exactly 3 months later on 25 November. This was a wonderful discovery because even though I had technically planted at the ‘wrong time’ I found a variety that grows well in my climate … and in a speedy 3 month period rather than waiting an average 6 months!
- If you live in a high rainfall area, avoid harvesting in the wet season because bulbs can rot. Time your planting for a warm, dry harvest period. [See What to Plant When for your climate zone and use one of the calendar tools listed to help guide you.]
Step 1: Select & prepare your garlic.
- Choosing Varieties: Soft neck varieties braid and store well; produce 12-13 cloves/head but have no flower stem and suit warm climates with mild winters. One of the best varieties for our subtropical zone is ‘Glen Large’. Hard neck garlic types send up a hard, flowering stem so are less suitable for braiding, are milder tasting but have a shorter shelf life as they have less layers of skin around the bulb. Elephant or Russian garlic is not a true garlic (known as a bulbing leek and has a milder flavour). Select varieties that grow well in your local climate zone.
- Where to buy: Source locally grown organic garlic from organic growers and shops, online and farmers markets.
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- Selecting cloves: If buying from a store, choose your bulbs carefully. Pick the largest bulbs you can find – the size of the cloves you plant will determine whether you get big or small heads when you harvest.
- If you’re planting garlic from bulbs you have harvested last season, save your larger ones for this year’s crop. Make sure there are no signs of disease, marks or soft spots. Quality matters! Count roughly how many cloves/bulb to determine how many bulbs you need to buy for planting.
- How many? How much do you eat?! We eat a lot of garlic so I plant enough to have at least one bulb every week of the year (52 + a few extras as a buffer). Each clove grows 1 bulb.
- Chill garlic cloves in the fridge for a few weeks (this improves bulb development). You can skip this step but it helps grow bigger garlic.
- To prevent rotting in the soil, here’s a little tip: soak your cloves in a glass jar with equal quantities of baking soda to organic liquid seaweed for 2 hours. e.g. for 8-10 cloves (1 average bulb) = 1 tblspn baking soda: 1 tblspn seaweed. Increase quantity depending on number of cloves you’re planting.
Step 2: Prepare your container or garden bed.
- Soil test with a pH tester or kit. Garlic prefers soil with a pH 6.5 – 7.0.
- Likes: Full sun position; well-drained, humus-rich soil (add worm castings, homemade compost, humus, well rotted manure or blood & bone) plus a balance of nutrients (I use a complete organic fertiliser that includes rock minerals). Because garlic is a hungry root crop, the soil needs to be light and fluffy so turn it over gently if needed and mix your fertiliser in well first.
- Garlic LOVES mulch to prevent weeds, provide protection, maintain soil moisture and keep soil cool longer.
- Dislikes: Too dry (when young), too wet or freezing. The colder your winter, the deeper your mulch should be. I add about 8cm here in the sub-tropics, but very cold areas could need 10-15cm.
- Companion Planting: Garlic helps improve the health and growth of other plants including raspberries, beetroot, strawberries, tomatoes, lettuce, summer savoury & roses. On the flip side, never plant garlic near peas or beans. I’ve seen this in practice (even with chives & spring onions near bean plants) and they just won’t be friends so don’t waste your time and money!
- Location: Good crop rotation practices help prevent diseases so avoid planting garlic where you’ve grown members of the Allium family in the last couple of years. If you have to reuse a pot, add fresh potting mix.
Step 3: Planting
- Timing: Ideally during autumn. [See the Benefits of Moon Gardening to learn more about sowing crops at the optimum time each month and using a calendar].
- Separate the garlic head into individual cloves – largest ones will be around the outside and are ideal for planting. Small inner cloves can be used for cooking.
- Sowing: Make a hole with your finger or the handle of your trowel roughly twice the depth of the clove (about 5cm/2in) and 10cm/4in apart.
- Press down very firmly as you back fill with soil (to avoid the bulbs being pushed out after a few days as the roots start to develop). Check at this stage and reposition them back into line! Water in well with liquid seaweed. When the shoots are about 5cm/2in high, add mulch thickly to suppress weeds.
- Distance between rows: 30cm/12in. Yields: 1m2/3ft2 can produce 52 garlic bulbs – one for every week of the year.
- Container planting: Garlic grows 40-60cm/15-24in high depending on the variety and although you may not get as large bulbs in a pot, they are most definitely worth growing. As they are a long growing crop, interplant with fast growing lettuces and leafy greens around the outside. Pot depth should be at least 15cm/6in.
How to Plant Garlic in a Container
Step 4: Nurture Your Garlic
- The new shoots will appear and when they are about 15cm tall, it’s time to fertilise again with liquid nutrients.
- Every 2 weeks, I use seaweed or fish emulsion + a slurp of molasses in a watering can; worm juice (liquid from my worm farm) or compost tea. Alternating their liquid diet seems to keep my garlic babies happy.
- In between, water regularly (unless it rains) until the plant flowers (hard neck varieties) or about 1 month before harvest (soft neck). This allows bulbs to dry out and harden. I maintain adequate soil moisture of 40-50% by checking every so often with a moisture meter. Soil should be moist NOT wet.
- Most importantly keep weeds at bay (garlic has a big appetite and doesn’t like competition)!
Step 5: Harvest (the fun part!)
- Keep a record of when you plant so you know the time your garlic variety is likely to mature.
- You have a window of opportunity to harvest – too soon and it will look like an onion (the segments and papery wrapper will not yet be formed).
- As a guideline, harvest hard neck garlic when roughly 1/3 – 1/2 the leaves are brown and wilted. Harvest soft neck varieties when the bottom few leaves start dying off or the garlic falls over. If you’re not sure, pull out one bulb to test it is fully formed before harvesting the whole crop.
- Dig or gently pull up the whole plant – I don’t recommend using a garden fork or you can accidentally spear your bulb (like I did the first time!!) and watch out for earthworms that love to party around the roots.
- Leave a few garlic heads in the soil rather than harvesting them all at this stage.
- If you need flavour before your garlic is fully grown, you can still harvest immature bulbs (they’ll look more like leeks)!
- To cure your garlic, hang in a dry, airy place in the shade or on racks to dry the bulbs for a couple of weeks (up to 4 weeks in cool zones).
- They are ready for storage when the bulb is papery and crinkled.
Harvesting, Curing and Storing Garlic
- Hang: When they are fully dried (press hard and if there’s no resistance they’re ready).
- Haircut: If you are going to plait the garlic, leave the leaves on, otherwise trim the tops approximately 2.5cm/1in above the bulb and snip the roots off.
How to Braid Your Garlic
- Freeze: Place individual cloves in a freezer bag. Remove as much air as possible, seal and label with the date. Store for up to 3 months. You can freeze garlic cooked or raw to use later. Whole cloves will retain their full flavour but chopped/minced raw garlic will start to develop allicin (this active ingredient is what makes it taste hot) so releasing it will give your garlic a more mellow taste. Just use a little more in the recipe if you choose to freeze, to make up for the less potent flavour when you defrost.
- Freeze minced garlic in an ice cube tray for convenient portions.
- Store in a garlic keeper or open weave basket but not near humidity or steam as this can reduce the bulb storage life.
- Storing in the fridge will reduce the flavour of your gorgeous garlic – putting it in plastic or airtight containers can produce mouldy, rotted or sprouting garlic!
- Hard neck garlic varieties produce flower stems (‘scapes’) that form heads with bulbils – prune these scapes off as soon as they appear so the plant puts its energy into producing a larger garlic bulb.
- Plant garlic under roses to deter aphids.
- Ensure soil is moist for newly planted garlic so roots develop. Avoid over watering and ensure good soil drainage to prevent cloves rotting.
- If you have a problem it’s likely to be due to lack of soil preparation, management during growing, incorrect pH, choosing the wrong variety for your zone or planting at the wrong time.
In Part 2, ‘Amazing Uses for Garlic in Your Home & Garden’ I share some of the wonderful ways you can benefit from your gorgeous garlic – recipes, garden tips and for medicinal purposes. You might also enjoy Guide to Growing Spring Onions – both indoors and out!
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So have you tried to grow garlic before? What have your experiences been?
- According to Australian Garlic Producers, “In China, chemicals banned in Australia are still being used to grow garlic. Australia imports 95% of our garlic from China. Chinese garlic is gamma irradiated to prevent sprouting and is also sprayed with Maleic Hydrazide to extend shelf life. All imported garlic is fumigated with Methyl Bromide by AQIS on arrival in Australia.” – You decide if you want to eat garlic treated this way.
- Food Irradiation: The Untold Story. Download a free ‘Irradiation-free Food Guide’ produced by Food Irradiation Watch and learn more about how & why food is irradiated from their fact sheets.
- Australian Quarantine Inspection Services (AQIS) requirements for imported garlic “The produce is subject to mandatory (pre-shipment or on-arrival) fumigation with methyl bromide at the rate of 40g/m³ for 3 hours at 21°C.”
- ‘Fresher and Smellier‘ – The Age article – Explains good reasons to ask where your garlic comes from.
- Methyl bromide toxicity report – PAN Pesticides Database.
- Garlic World – Traditional Worldwide Garlic Varieties for Growing and Eating. (Australia)
- Diggers Club – Various varieties. (Australia)
- Simply Garlic – 14 Heritage Varieties of non-irradiated, herbicide & pesticide free garlic. (Canada)
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